Atlas Shrugged is my favorite book. No, really, it is. I may post another day about why it’s my favorite book, but not today. I’ve read it more times than I can count. When Christians go to their bibles in times of trouble, I turn to the words of Atlas Shrugged the same way. My love of this book is deeply emotional and not a bit rational, and has nothing at all to do with politics or capitalism.
So when I hear conservatives use this book to justify the state of modern capitalism, my jaw hits the floor. Are you serious? If our capitalists behaved the way Ayn Rand’s heroes behave then a lot of our current problems would be solved. If we demonized the kind of behavior that her villains engage in, we’d solve a few more.
As I’ve grown up it’s become very clear to me that Ayn Rand’s villains are strawmen, at least in the context of the United States. They are not, however, strawmen in the context of what actually happened in soviet Russia, which Ayn Rand witnessed first hand. You shouldn’t forget, when criticizing her extremism, that this is a woman who actually stood in a bread line. Have you ever stood in a bread line? I didn’t think so. What happens in Atlas Shrugged is a fair analog to what actually happened in Soviet Russia. (More or less. I don’t have time to get into the fall of the Romanov dynasty, the rise of the merchant class, and the Communist Revolution. Suffice it to say that actual history is far more complicated than any allegory can contain.)
Additionally, I think it’s important to read Nathaniel Branden’s takedown of the psychologically unhealthy behaviors of Ayn Rand’s heroes.
All of this is to say that it is possible to enjoy and value media while also recognizing problematic elements within it. So let me tell you some things about Ayn Rand’s heroes and villains that conservatives conveniently forget.
HANK REARDEN PAYS A LIVING WAGE
The first man to quit at Rearden Steel was Tom Colby, rolling mill foreman, head of the Rearden Steel Workers Union. For ten years, he had heard himself denounced throughout the country, because his was a “company union” and because he had never engaged in a violent conflict with the management. This was true: no conflict had ever been necessary; Rearden paid a higher wage scale than any union scale in the country, for which he demanded-and got-the best labor force to be found anywhere.
It’s heavily implied in the book that all of the industrialists do. That they value their workers and have loyalty to them. That their workers, despite being blue collar workers, are people that the industrialists care about, and that they are willing to pay well to hire and retain qualified workers. There is another part in the book where Dagny Taggart offers a blank check to a young worker that she thinks shows exceptional promise; she does this because he is about to quit and she wants to retain him.
At no point do any of Ayn Rand’s heroes say “I can hire an inexperienced college kid for a lot less than the experienced foreman or engineer who’s been here two decades, so I’m going to lay off those guys and fill their positions with cheaper and less experienced labor.”
But her villains do exactly that.
RAND’S HEROES DO NOT SEEK FAVORS FROM WASHINGTON
Not only do they not seek favors, but they have distaste for the entire process, and won’t allow anyone to prevaricate about what it actually is: bribery and blackmail:
“Mr. Rearden,” he had said once, “if you feel you’d like to hand out more of the Metal to friends of yours-I mean, in bigger hauls-it could be arranged, you know. Why don’t we apply for a special permission on the ground of essential need? I’ve got a few friends in Washington. Your friends are pretty important people, big businessmen, so it wouldn’t be difficult to get away with the essential need dodge. Of course, there would be a few expenses. For things in Washington, You know how it is, things always occasion expenses.”
“You understand what I mean.”
“No,” Rearden had said, “I don’t. Why don’t you explain it to me?”
The boy had looked at him uncertainly, weighed it in his mind, then come out with: “It’s bad psychology.”
“You know, Mr. Rearden, it’s not necessary to use such words as that.”
“Words are relative. They’re only symbols. If we don’t use ugly symbols, we won’t have any ugliness. Why do you want me to say things one way, when I’ve already said them another?”
“Which way do I want you to say them?”
“Why do you want me to?”
“For the same reason that you don’t.”
(I am sorry for the extra stupid way my blog template formatted that quote. I’ll try to fix it in the code later, but not today.)
There are pages and pages and pages of back room political deals done in this book, including a huge industry bailout not at all dissimilar to the recent American bailouts for the Auto and Financial industries. (Although I am sure Ayn Rand would choke on calling Finances an “industry.”) Like the real world bailouts, these bailouts and policies benefit only those with political pull in Washington while leaving behind the less powerful or well connected. The politicians in Atlas Shrugged swallow their own tails while scrambling desperately to stack the deck in favor of the people they think they need to curry favor with. Money changes hands, promises, blackmail, you name it. While the philosophical tripe coming out of the mouths of these politicians may be strawman fodder, the mechanism of policy and decision making is not that far off the mark. To wit, politicians can be bribed, pressured, and influenced, and the decisions they make and the policies they support are just as often about who their friends are and where their money is coming from as they are about what is good for the country. Ayn Rand saw Citizens United coming a million miles away. I’m not sure whether she would have condemned it or not, honestly, but she would have condemned the purchase of democracy, and she would have condemned politicians pushing through legislation to help their business friends.
This is one of my favorite quotes from the book because it’s so darkly hilarious:
“Dagny, everybody knows it. Everybody knows how train schedules have been run in the past three weeks, and why some districts and some shippers get transportation, while others don’t. What we’re not supposed to do is say that we know it. We’re supposed to pretend to believe that ‘public welfare’ is the only reason for any decision-and that the public welfare of the city of New York requires the immediate delivery of a large quantity of grapefruit.”
THE VILLAINS EVADE RESPONSIBILITY FOR DANGEROUS AND HARMFUL DECISIONS
I couldn’t find a good quote-bite for this item. The most illustrative story is multiple pages long, so I will summarize it:
There is a train running to the west coast on a coal engine. There is a tunnel on the line and it is unsafe to run a coal engine through that tunnel. Additionally, the signaling on the line is known to be unreliable and unsafe. The train stops before the tunnel to await a diesel engine, which is safe to run through the tunnel. Diesel engines are in short supply and the train will need to wait, standing, for a very long time. A washington man on the train sends a message to corporate headquarters promising retribution if they do not get the train moving ASAP.
What follows is a dark comedy of errors as everyone in the decision making chain attempts to pass the responsibility for a decision that they know will harm people down the chain. (You have to read it to appreciate it. It’s in chapter VII: The moratorium on Brains.)
You know what happens, right? They send that train into the tunnel with a coal engine and improper signaling and everybody on it dies. Oh, except the engineer who is just injured and lives to tell the tale because someone has to pass on the tale.
Rand’s heroes, on the other hand, courageously accept consequences for decisions they consider ethical. Dagny Taggart would have had no problem telling that Washington man to fuck off because that train was not running in unsafe conditions no matter what he threatened. (Sadly, she was elsewhere at this point in the story)
It is Rand’s villains who evade responsibility and pass the buck, not her heroes. It is not Randian heroes that were behind the collapse of the financial industry, and it is not Randian heroes who are still, to this day, evading responsibility for that collapse.
THE VILLAINS CO-OPT PURE SCIENCE TO BUILD WMDS AND DEPLOY MILITARY TROOPS AGAINST CITIZENS
The sound ray is invisible, inaudible and fully controllable in respect to target, direction and range. Its first public test, which you are about to witness, has been set to cover a small sector, a mere two miles, in perfect safety, with all space cleared for twenty miles beyond. The present generating equipment in our laboratory is capable of producing rays to cover-through the outlets which you may observe under the dome-the entire countryside within a radius of a hundred miles, a circle with a periphery extending from the shore of the Mississippi, roughly from the bridge of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, to Des Moines and Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Austin, Minnesota, to Woodman, Wisconsin, to Rock Island, Illinois. This is only a modest beginning. We possess the technical knowledge to build generators with a range of two and three hundred miles-but due to the fact that we were unable to obtain in time a sufficient quantity of a highly heat resistant metal, such as Rearden Metal, we had to be satisfied with our present equipment and radius of control. In honor of our great executive, Mr. Thompson, under whose far-sighted administration the State Science Institute was granted the funds without which Project X would not have been possible, this great invention will henceforth be known as the Thompson Harmonizer!”
The weapon described is basically a superpowered LRAD that shreds structures and flesh alike. I chose that quote instead of the more graphic one about it’s effects because it outlines the intentions of the villains: to use it against citizens, domestically. Later in the story when everything goes to hell, these same politicians deploy military troops against American citizens.
THE VILLAINS USE TORTURE
At the end of the novel the villains use a machine called the Ferris Persuader to torture the eponymous protagonist, John Galt. It breaks and nobody knows how to fix it. . .except John Galt, who, in a moment of contempt, tells the villains how to fix it. It’s another darkly funny part of the book. The reason they are torturing him is both stupid and understandable. By this point, he has stolen away all the brilliant and competent members of society and they want him to a)give them back and b)take a leadership position to restore order and prosperity and he will do neither. Yes, this is the basic premise of the book.
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I hope I gave you some ammunition for next time you talk to a conservative capitalist. Do me a favor and remind them that the current state of American Capitalism looks a hell of a lot more like the world of Ayn Rand’s villains and a lot less like the one her heroes were fighting for. Also, go ahead and drop in that Hank Rearden paid his workers a living wage and that Dagny Taggart was willing to let qualified applicants (and competent producers) write their own tickets.